DENVER—Twenty-one years ago, voters here chose Federico Peña as the city’s first Hispanic mayor. Eight years later, they elected Wellington Webb as their first black mayor. Webb won a contest in which both candidates were African-American—and 68% of voters were white.
Then last year, Denver picked its first white mayor in 20 years.
Today, Census data show that racial and ethnic minorities in Denver now outnumber whites.
No surprise here: Demographic shifts have rolled through Colorado’s capital city for decades.
“It’s nice to see the demographics are catching up to my appointments,” jokes Mayor John Hickenlooper, a brew pub owner and downtown activist who has filled two-thirds of his top posts with blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
The Census Bureau estimates that Denver has 557,478 people—49.4% white, 34.8% Hispanic, 10.6% black, 3% Asian and 2.2% other. An infusion of Hispanic and Asian immigrants is only the latest wave of change that has included shifting birth rates, a Sun Belt economic boom and modest “white flight” to Denver’s sprawling suburbs.
Similar changes happened in 25 other U.S. counties since 2000, according to 2003 estimates. In some, the majority-minority scales are tipping because the white population is aging and immigrants are flowing in. That’s the case in the 11 rural Texas counties where whites aren’t the majority.
In the ‘90s, Hispanics made up 80% of the net growth in Texas Panhandle counties far from metropolitan areas, state demographer Steve Murdock says.
“Growth, when it does occur, is all Hispanic,” Murdock says.
In other states, the “majority” is shrinking because whites are moving to other states in search of jobs and a lower cost of living.
Estimates for July 1, 2003, show Texas had a 49.5% minority population, but other surveys say it has already surpassed 50%. Hawaii’s minority population is 77%; New Mexico’s, 56%; and California’s, 55%. The District of Columbia is 72% minority.
Massachusetts lost as many non-Hispanic whites in the first three years of this decade—about 37,000—as it did during all of the 1990s, says William Frey of The Brookings Institution.
This demographic upheaval is forcing the nation to rethink its definition of “minorities.” The country went through similar cycles in the past century. In the early 1900s, Italians, Poles, Russians and Greeks were not considered white. Now they are.
“A black-and-white country made sense in the ‘60s,” says Roderick Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “It makes much less sense now.”
Hispanics, who can be of any race, are now classified as a separate ethnic group. But that could change, too. A large portion of third-generation Hispanics do not speak Spanish, and interracial marriage is growing, boosting the nation’s multiracial population.
For more than a generation, Colorado’s capital city was becoming much more diverse.
This week, Hickenlooper visited an adult English class whose 46 students came from 36 countries. On Wednesday, he visited an elementary school that four years ago was two-thirds black and now is two-thirds Hispanic.
“It’s a good time to be a Latino,” says Estevan Flores, executive director of the Latino/a Research Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Denver.
He says Denver’s growth is part of the “Latinization of cities, counties and pretty soon, states.” But growth of political power will take more time, he says, as Hispanic immigrants first must become citizens.
“In the future, most Americans will be ‘minorities,’ which is to say they are the new majority,” says Robert Lang, head of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.